Part of my self-identity is as a jock. That isn’t to say I’m particularly athletic, but I always wanted to be. I took part in sports, but never excelled. But that desire helps define me as a person. Changing the Game, a documentary by Michael Barnett, is a look at the struggles of three high school athletes as they strive to claim their identities. All three are transgender. [Note: throughout the review I will refer to them as the gender they know themselves to be.]
Mack Beggs is a Texas state wrestling champion, trying to gain his second title. In Texas, boys are not allowed to wrestle against girls, and gender is determined by one’s birth certificate. That means that Mack must wrestle against girls. Because he is taking testosterone as part of his transitional therapy, he has a definite advantage against his opponents.
Sarah Rose Huckman is a skier in New Hampshire. That state’s rules, when she began competing, was that gender reassignment surgery must be completed to compete as that gender. (Which is a fairly inane idea given high school students ages.) She becomes an advocate for transgender rights in her state.
Andraya Yearwood runs track in Connecticut. In that state, students can compete in whichever gender they self-identify as. Like Mack, as Andraya competes in women’s races, her body (and its masculine hormones, create an advantage.
All three of these young people are skilled at their sports. But they risk controversy to take part. Is it fair to the other athletes? Is it fair to these three if they are banned from competition? The film has voices on both sides of these questions, but there are deeper questions that arise as well, such as the nature of transgender identity and the role of sports in schools.
As we meet the three athletes, their parents, friends, and coaches, we certainly see them as the gender that they identify with. Although, Mack’s grandfather still struggles with the proper pronoun to use, all of these people are supportive of them not just as athletes, but as young people. These athletes are very clear what gender they are—even if people in the stands or state athletic systems are not.
It is also shown how difficult it is not just to be a trans athlete, but a trans teen as well. It is noted in the film that 40% of trans teens attempt suicide. The pressures of being transgender can become overwhelming. These three athletes must deal with those pressures, and have them amplified by the controversy when they compete.
The film also looks into the value of sports for students. Andraya’s coach is the most open about his view of sports. It is not primarily about winning, but about teaching life lessons to the young people he coaches. An administrator in Connecticut makes the case for their very open policy by saying that you cannot have them live as one gender all the rest of the day, then when it comes to sports tell them they aren’t that gender.
The film is a fair treatment of the issue of the participation in sports by such athletes. There are problems with all the systems to be sure. But as a jock, I value the ways that sport (even when I failed) has influenced my life. I would not want to prevent young athletes from such experiences because their bodies do not match their gender. The three athletes we meet know themselves as more than as jocks. So do we.
Changing the Game is streaming on Hulu.
Photos courtesy of Hulu.